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Si suona Passacaglio
A Didactic Introduction to Improvisation in the Italian
Practice of Basso Ostinato*

Nicola Cumer

Schola Cantorum Basiliensis

Come Spiridione dimostra nella sua As Spiridionis shows in his Nova

Nova instructio (1670-77), instructio (1670-77,) the Excellentis-
lexcellentissimus componista deve simus Componista (the most excellent
essere capace di combinare improvvi- composer) must be able to combine by
sando diversi modelli armonici e improvising different harmonic and
melodici, costruendo cos una forma melodic models, building up a musical
musicale. Questi modelli si possono form. These models can be found in
ritrovare nei lavori dei grandi maestri. the works of the great masters. They
Devono essere analizzati per ricavare gli must be analyzed for finding out the
elementi di base per poi essere basic elements and then systematized.
sistematizzati. Questo processo pu This process can be outlined best by
essere meglio evidenziato nelle forme su ostinato forms, as the bergamasca and
ostinato, come la bergamasca e il the passacaglio. In the preliminary
passacaglio. Negli esercizi preliminari le exercises the three voices of the basic
tre voci dellarmonizzazione di base del harmonization of the passacaglio are
passacaglio vengono prima scambiate, at first exchanged, then diminuted
poi diminuite e arricchite con cromati- and enriched with chromaticism. The
smi. I pezzi anonimi del manoscritto anonymous pieces in the manuscript
Chigiti Q IV 27 sono una specie di livello Chigi Q IV 27 are a sort of intermedi-
intermedio, fra gli esercizi di base e il ate level, between the basic exercises
culmine dellarte del passacaglio, le and the highest level in the art of
Cento partite sopra passacagli di passacaglio, the Cento partite sopra
Frescobali. In quella composizione si passacagli by Frescobaldi. There one
trova ogni forma di condotta delle parti, can find every way of voice leading,
dissonanze, modulazioni, blue notes, dissonances, modulations, blue notes,
cambi di proporzioni e mutamenti d changes in proportions and affect
affetto. shifts.

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The century of basso ostinato

O ne could without exaggeration define the seventeenth century as the

century of basso ostinato. Many compositions of this genre, based mostly
on basses of passacaglio and ciaccona, come from this epoch.1 The basso
ostinato was also very important in the didactics of improvisation at that time.
Many musical sources, mainly manuscripts, contain compositions on those
bassi, the pedagogical component of which consists in the fact that their short
harmonic scheme is well suited for trying out different rhythmical and
melodic solutions at the keyboard. In the field of the variation upon a basso
ostinato, Frescobaldis compositions are a peak probably unequaled in the first
half of the seventeenth century. In particular, the Cento partite sopra
passacagli in the Aggiunta to the Primo libro di Toccate e Partite (1637)
constitute a sort of encyclopedia of the possible variations on a basso.

Models that facilitate the approach to the art of improvising passacagli are
to be found in the manuscript Chigi Q IV 27, which contains, alongside
liturgical forms, partitas, and ball music, also compositions of bassi ostinati, of
variable length (from a few measures to several pages) and in different
tonalities (in major up to three sharps and three flats; in minor up to two
sharps and three flats).2 These pieces, that are untitled (one could call them
passacagli or ritornelli), contain precise stylistic elements, e.g. a kind of
preparamento alla cadenza (preparing of the cadence) extended (see Ex. 5,
a-f). These elements are used systematically in all the compositions. In
particular the preparamento is used so extensively as to give the impression
that the author wished to try out this new seconda prattica element in every
possible variant (see examples 8 a-f, 9 a-b).The passacagli of the Chigi
manuscript are an important source because they can be considered the
propaedeutic level to Frescobaldis Cento Partite. They allow us to better
understand an aspect of musical didactics in Rome around the third decade of
the 1600s, and to get a glimpse of the musical workshop of the Ferrarese
master. At the time of their composition they were also a useful collection for
those musicians who, not being (yet) particularly skilled in improvisation,
could pick up one piece or another to use as a ritornello in several situations,

* This essay was originally published in German (CUMER 2007). The author wishes to thank the
editors, Regola Rapp and Thomas Drescher, for permission to translate and expand it.
1 The issue of the difference between passacaglio and ciaccona, which in the sources are often
associated, can not be solved here. What is important for our discussion is that in both cases they
are short forms of basso ostinato, starting with the first degree of the tonality, and going to the
fifth. This harmonic scheme has a strong cadence V-I, which comes back constantly (in an
ostinato way); the movement of such a scheme, strongly projected forward (one could say with
drive), comes from the fact that the last harmony of a variation is also the first of the following
2 In the case of passacagli it is appropriate to use the terms major or minor tonality. The Chigi
manuscript presents the basses ordered according the number of accidentals, corresponding to
the modern major and minor tonalities.

N. Cumer Si suona passacaglio

for example in a strophic aria. The different lengths and tonalities of these
musical examples might be particularly useful in the theatre, when it was
necessary to play instrumental music during changes of scenery.3 Nevertheless
this music cannot compare with the extraordinary complexity of the Cento
partite, and sometimes they look a little bit scholastic and repetitive; but in
any case they represent the result of an accurate study, and show important
aspects of the compositional practice of the time. In this way we can not only
familiarize ourselves with Frescobaldis art: through the Chigi manuscript we
also have at our disposal music that can be used as stylistic exercises, maybe
real examples by Frescobaldis students or musicians from his circle. What we
are missing is the previous level, i.e. a series of preliminary exercises that most
probably were practically demonstrated to the pupil at the keyboard by the
maestro, as later described by Alessandro Scarlatti:

Other features required by the fluency of the style of this present writer,
discovered by him in the most noble way of playing, can not be given in a written
form, but only orally, with the different manners of hand movements for playing;
and therefore he declines to comment about these points.4

This essay is therefore an attempt to reconstruct that multi-layered process, to

make it useful for the present day in improvisation at the harpsichord. So I
present first the building elements of the passacaglio, in different degrees of
complexity and with increasing difficulty. Then I will offer an overview of the
stylistic elements and particular ingredients which belong to the higher
level, as can be found in composition of the Chigi manuscript and in Fresco-
The didactic method used here is partly inspired by the Nova Instructio
by Spiridionis (SPIRIDIONIS 2003 and 2008). Let us observe his examples 1a
and 1b. Ex 1a is a passage from Frescobaldis Toccata ottava of the First Book;
Ex. 1b is the slightly modified version offered by Spiridionis in his method,
without mentioning the author or the source. Frescobaldis bass line is not
kept as it was, descending by step. To make the example more easy to memo-
rize, Spiridionis simplifies, so to say, the bass line, changing the C to G and the
B-flat to B. In this way the example becomes a descending bass movement
with 7-6 suspensions: a standard model that is easier to recall in improvising,
notwithstanding the relative complexity of the diminutions in the right hand.
At first sight it might look like a small detail. Nevertheless I am sure that this
is not a copying mistake by Spiridionis, but a deliberate systematization, with

3 See for instance the annotation Si suona passacaglio in the Neapolitan manuscript of
Incoronazione di Poppea by Monteverdi (Finale, Scena VIII), Napoli, Biblioteca del
Conservatorio S. Pietro a Majella, Rari 6.4.i. Of this passacaglio there is no trace in the
manuscript: it was probably never composed, but taken from an anthology, like the Chigi
manuscript, or improvised.
4 Altre circostanze accidentali richieste dall'armonia dello stile di questo presente scrittore da lui
trovate nel piu' nobil modo di sonare, non ponno darsi in iscritto, m voce, colle varie maniere
de' movimenti della mano nel sonare; al che si riserba, (GBLbl, MS Add. 14244, p. 40).

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the aim of making Frescobaldis passage easy to incorporate in the repertoire

of the student in improvisation. The example by Frescobaldi and Spiridionis is
of crucial importance in the practice of historical improvisation, because it
shows how one can use the work of the great master for didactic purpose. But
to do this it is necessary not only to make a careful analysis, but very often also
a simplification of the original models, so that they might be memorized easily
and re-used for improvisation.

Example 1 (a-b)

Preliminary exercises
Like Spiridionis, I would prefer to explain this didactic approach by musical
examples that need almost no further explanation. At first I have prepared a
series of examples with different harmonic and melodic solutions, taken from
the repertoire, and simplified into exercises following Spiridionis example.
These models are furthermore used for the whole harmonic scheme (or
variation) as systematically as possible; something that happens but seldom in
the repertoire. Then the single voices are exchanged, and combined in
different ways. This is useful, if not indispensable, for a deep understanding of
how a musical figure works, for mastering the variation techniques, and for
recalling to the mind and to the fingers the different patterns, recombining
them during improvisation. Original examples from musical sources follow
the preliminary exercises, providing solutions typical of Italian style at the
time of Frescobaldi. To make comparison of the examples easier, all of them
are in d minor. It is tacitly understood that the pupil must transpose them into
all tonalities; and those examples for which only the incipit is given, must be
completed using the suggested figure. The most frequent meter is ternary,

N. Cumer Si suona passacaglio

though passacagli in binary meter are not rare at all.5 The following elements
of the passacaglio are treated:

a) Basic harmonization
b) Diminutions
c) Chromaticism
d) Preparamento to the cadence

a) Basic harmonization of the passacaglio bass, with voice exchange and


Example 2 (a-g)

a: bass of passacaglio;
b: basic harmonization in three parts;
c: adding suspensions;
d-g: voices exchanged.

5The majority of the examples is realized in three voices. This sort of realization was, up to the
end of the seventeenth century, of great didactic importance. Three-part examples are the
majority in (PENNA 1996). The same observation applies to (MUFFAT 1991). Many of the Chigi
passacagli and other contemporary collections are basically composed in three voices.
6 The passacaglio is often identified with a descending tetrachord in the bass (later called also
lamento): this is only one of the possible variants of the passacaglio bass, though it is the most
common. It should be noticed that quite often there is an ascending line from the first to the fifth
degree, as for example in the second of the Cento partite by Frescobaldi.

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(* in example Ex.6, f-g, the a in the bass can be changed to d to avoid the 6 4
harmony at the beginning of the variation.)

b) Diminution of a single voice, with parts exchanged.

Example 3 (a-r)

N. Cumer Si suona passacaglio

The diminution presented in examples e-h represents, one could say, a topos
in the passacagli of the Frescobaldian era, in both instrumental and vocal
music: for instance the incipit of the Cento partite, and the aria di passacaglia
Cos mi disprezzate in Arie musicali. Examples k-r have suspensions. One can
also look for other figures in the literature to enlarge ones repertoire.

c) Chromaticism

Example 4 (a-i)

d) Preparamento to the cadence7

This is an ingredient typical of the Italian passacagli in the early Seicento. It
boosts the harmonic tension before the cadence, and it is characterized by the
dissonance that the voice repetition in the right hand makes above the
descending bass. This tension is resolved on the dominant harmony.

7 I use this term because of the similarity of the phenomenon in the passacagli with what
Bartolomeo Bismantova described as preparamento alla cadenza, in which the note repetition of
the voices above the moving bass creates in a cadence a strong harmonic tension. In the
passacagli there is a sort of amplification of Bismantovas preparamento (BISMANTOVA 1978,

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Example 5 (a-f)

Other elements and techniques of composition/improvisation in

the passacaglio (original examples )

a) Diversit di passi

Example 6 (a-d)

A further example is given in the first four measures in Frescobaldis Cento

partite: note the search for the diversity of passages by the author, also in the
bass movement: descending, ascending, chromatically ascending, chromati-
cally descending.

N. Cumer Si suona passacaglio

Example 6.2
Frescobaldis Cento partite, incipit.
Accentuation of the second beat of the measure is also fairly common.

Example 6.3 (a-d)

A typical figure in different solutions, with accentuation on the second beat of
the measure.
a: with 7-6 suspension;
b: with the preparamento;
c-d: in canon.

b) Blue notes

The third, sixth and seventh scale degree of the major scale are lowered to
achieve a particular expressivity. This does not necessarily mean a change of
mode from major to minor: this phenomenon could be better described as a
mixture of the two scales, or just as a color change.

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Example 7 (a-f)
Blue notes in Frescobaldi.

N. Cumer Si suona passacaglio

c) Durezze: particular voice leading and dissonance treatment.

Example 8 (a-f)
Durezze in Frescobaldi and Chigi ms.
In Ex. 8a, even thinking of a voice crossing in the upper voices, between
measure 3 and 4, the aural effect of the tritonus is not eliminated.

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d) Other preparamenti.

Example 9 (a-c)

The preparamenti in the compositions of the Chigi manuscript have often a

harsh sonority; it seems that the anonymous author is looking for a cluster
effect. Frescobaldi, on the other hand, increases the harmonic tension by a
nervous movement of the voices, combined with pedal notes and trills. Notice
in example 9c the doubling of the fourth at the distance of two octaves, and
the resolution of only the lower of them: the d in the soprano, i.e. the note that
prepares the cadence and makes the dissonant fourth over the bass, remains
unresolved (see also Ex. 8 c and d).8

e) Passaggi ad altro tono (Shifts to another tone)

In the bassi ostinati of the Frescobaldian epoch, changes to another tone are
often found: sometimes a composition ends in a different tone (i.e. the Cento
partite start in d minor and end in e minor).9
These passaggi ad altro tono are often combined with a change of affetto
(see for instance the passacaglio in B-flat major in the Aggiunta of the Primo

8 A similar phenomenon is described at the beginning of the eighteenth century by Francesco

Gasparini in Larmonico prattico al cembalo (GASPARINI 2001). Dealing with the stile pieno (full
style), Gasparini explains that unresolved fourth (in this case in the right hand) as an
9This way of building a musical form, not rare in the keyboard music of the early Baroque, was
maybe influenced by the fact that the partitas, as well as the toccatas, need not be played in their
entirety. See Gregorio Strozzis annotation to his Toccate di Passacagli.

N. Cumer Si suona passacaglio

libro di Toccate: first part in B-flat in a dancing 6/4, second part in g minor in
a calmer 3/2 with chromaticism).
These are the most common passaggi in other tones:
- in major: from I to the VI degree, and from I to V.
- in minor: I-III, I-IV, and I-V.

Modulations up a fourth are also common, even more than once in the
same composition. They are used in both major and minor, and they create a
sort of big harmonic crescendo throughout the piece. Storaces passacaglio in
f minor has the following tonal scheme, with original affect indications: f
minor b-flat minor (grave) - E-flat major (allegro), while his ciaccona in C
major: C major F major B-flat major C major. Here follows the passage
from B-flat to C:

Example 10
I leave the closing statement to Spiridionis, who hopes to motivate his readers
to assiduous study by these words:

Hoc secretum, si perfecte penetraveris, nullo quasi negotio excellentissimus

componista evadere, ac inventis millena ac millena addere poteris (SPIRIDIONIS
2008, p.85).10

10 The Latin verb componere can be translated as to combine, which matches the aim of
Spiridionis work, rather than as to compose. The latter, in fact, recalls written music more than
improvised. Componista, with reference to the didactic tradition presented here, can be also an
improviser, who does not create his solutions from nothing, but makes reference to a personal
repertory of formulas, more or less elaborated, that are put together during improvisation.
Therefore I suggest translating thus: If you are able to penetrate this secret in depth, you will
become with small effort an excellent expert of combination, and you will be able to add
thousands of other [ideas].

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BISMANTOVA, B. (1978), Compendio musicale, SPES, Firenze.
CUMER, N. (2007), Si suona passacaglio - eine didaktische
Improvisationseinleitung zur italienischen Ostinato-Praxis, Basler
Jahrbuch fr historische Musikpraxis, 31, pp. 117-129.
GASPARINI, F. (2001), Larmonico pratico al cimbalo, Arnaldo Forni Editore,
Bologna (Bibliotheca Musica Bononiensis, Sez. II 26).
MUFFAT, G. (1991), Regulae Concentuum Partiturae, Bardi, Roma.
PENNA, L. (1996), Li Primi Albori Musicali, Arnaldo Forni Editore, Bologna
(Bibliotheca Musica Bononiensis, Sez. II 38).
SPIRIDIONIS, A MONTE CARMELO (2003), Nova Instructio pro Pulsandis Organis
Spinettis Manuchordiis, Partes Prima et Secunda, ed. mod. a cura di
Bellotti, E., Andromeda Editrice, Colledara (Tastature. Musiche
intavolate per strumenti da tasto, 11)
_______ (2008), Nova Instructio pro Pulsandis Organis Spinettis
Manuchordiis, Partes Tertia et Quarta, ed. mod. a cura di Bellotti, E., Il
Levante, Latina (Tastature. Musiche intavolate per strumenti da tasto,

Nicola Cumer si specializzato con Jesper Christensen (clavicembalo e basso

continuo) e Rudolf Lutz (improvvisazione) alla Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. Ha poi
iniziato a insegnare nella stessa istituzione nel 2001. Come membro del Forschun-
gsgruppe Basel fr Improvisation (F.B.I.) si dedica alla ricerca sulle prassi storiche

Nicola Cumer specialized with Jesper Christensen (harpsichord and basso continuo)
and Rudolf Lutz (improvisation) at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. He has been
teaching at the same institution since 2001. He is member of the Forschungsgruppe
Basel fr Improvisation (F.B.I.), researching on historical practices in improvisation.